As the title (a play on Jean-Luc "Cinema" Godard, perhaps?) suggests, this decades-spanning triptych from Agnès Varda highlights the importance of still photography to her film work from its very roots.
"Ulysses" (1982, 21 min.) is chronologically the middle film of "Cinevardaphoto" but its subject actually pre-dates the director's stunning feature debut "La Pointe-Courte" (1955). Varda opens by showing a black-and-white photograph she took in 1954 of a naked man, a boy and a dead goat on a beach. "It was Sunday by the sea, near Calais" she begins and provides brief bios of the three subjects, but her subsequent investigation (interrogation, really) reveals that this image, fixed and objective as it may be, yields meanings beyond the mere recitation of facts. She tracks down the man (now an art editor for "Elle" magazine) and the boy (now the adult son of one of her then-neighbors) to find out what they remember about the photo. The goat was unavailable for comment.
The photograph stirs up memories for everyone, but it is not a memory in and of itself. Memories change over time. The photograph may be an objective record of that place and moment, but by its very unchanging nature it recedes further and further from our current memories, which are just as real as the ones recorded then. But then again our current memories breathe life into that old, mechanically recorded one. I wonder if this is why the image of the photograph shown at the end of the film is much brighter than the one shown at the beginning. The photograph is a different record for everyone who looks at it, including Varda. It is a launching point for a host of other memories (mostly of old friends) related to the image, suggesting that for the photographer at least, there is just as much content "out of the frame" as in it. And in a moment of pure Varda, the goat comes back to ruminate on some ruminations.
In "Ydessa, The Bears, and Etc." (2004, 43 min.), the most recent of the three "Cinevardaphoto" shorts, Varda turns her camera on a photography exhibition. Ydessa Hendeles is the curator-collector-artist of a show which consists of hundreds and hundreds of photographs which all feature people and their teddy bears. She has collected these pictures from all across the globe (we see her trolling eBay at one point) and from many decades, and has crammed them onto the walls of her exhibition space, covering virtually every square inch, an overload of information and an overcrowding of the frame that would make even George Lucas envious.
Varda, like the viewer, wonders if the teddy bear theme might be a gimmick, but the closer she investigates Hendeles' motivations for the collection and exhibition the more serious the subject becomes. Let's just say that the images are not chosen capriciously. Varda isn't primarily concerned with a psychological study, however, and one of her major contributions to the project is to use her camera to trace the space of the exhibition itself to try to replicate (as best as possible from this skewed, two-dimensional perspective) the effects Hendeles was trying to create. I'm not sure how successful Varda is in doing so, but it's an interesting portrait of portraits nonetheless.
I don't trust any human being who doesn't love Agnès Varda, and I don't mean like. I mean love. She is the pixie queen of modern cinema, and her enduring appeal is not only due to her considerable skills as a filmmaker, but also the playful spirit on display in most of her films. That is true of every film in "Cinevardaphoto" but it is most apparent in the oldest film, "Salute les Cubains" ("Hi There, Cubanos," 1963, 28 min.)
Four years after Castro rode the wave of revolution into power, Varda visited Cuba and later assembled this ebullient film out of the 1,800 photographs she took there. Today, this might seem like a white-washed portrait of the "paradise" of Castro-era Cuba, but it reflected the enthusiasm of Varda and other Left Bankers at the time. Regardless of the political context, the film is an irresistible celebration of the culture and spirit of the people. Sharply edited still photos juke and jive to Cuban rhythms like a living comic book. Narrator Michel Piccoli reads from a tongue-in-cheek script: "Cuba was a cigar-shaped island for men…" Varda also narrates. Local musicians and artists wink to a global audience and provide testament to the richness of Cuban culture. If it looks a bit like a Chris Marker film, he is credited in the film and I believe he assisted in the editing, but don't take that as confirmed fact.
If the three films have anything to "say" about the oft-discussed relationship between cinema and still photography, I suggest it is the following: "They're the same, but different." Let's settle instead for three different uses and perspectives on the photographic image, and three sterling examples of the short films of Agnès Varda, goddess of the New Wave and also one of the great directors of the 21st century.
"Ydessa" is a mixture of 35 mm and video and is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Image quality is fairly sharp overall, but the colors generally look a bit drab. Basically, this looks like a fairly well-preserved source print (it's only 6 years old, mind you) that hasn't been touched up or enhanced in any way.
"Ulysses" is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio though the amount of image changes with different photographs. Some footage is in black-and-white as are most of the photographs. Contemporary footage is shot in color. This transfer is roughly the same in quality as "Ydessa" – fairly sharp but a little dingy overall, and this is most noticeable in the color sequences.
"Salut les Cubains" is a series of still photos (excerpt for brief video in the credits sequence) and looks rough around the edges but generally solid.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The audio hasn't been restored so there is some noise audible at various points, though surprisingly the audio for "Salut les Cubains" (the oldest) sounds pretty clean. "Ulysses" has the most audible background interference, but it's minimal. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
Complimentary to the three short films that comprise the 2004 "feature" release called "Cinevardaphoto," Cinema Guild has included a half dozen other short films by Agnès Varda which I will not review individually here, save to say that I loved the heck out of "Les Dites Cariatides" and was left perplexed by "7 P., Cuis., S. De B…"
I have included the brief capsule descriptions of each from the insert booklet to the DVD.
The six short films are:
"T'as De Beaux Escaliers, Tu Sais "("You've Got Beautiful Stairs, You Know," 1986, 3 min.)
What better way to pay tribute to the 50 year-old Cinémathèque Française in 150 seconds than by filming the 50 steps – the steps that lead up to the Musée de Cinema and down to the darkened screening room, where masterpieces featuring famous steps are shown.
"Plaisir D'Amour En Iran" ("Pleasure of Love in Iran," 1976, 6 min.)
How can you talk about love when you're looking at a mosque or talk about architecture in bed? This short film is a variation on the amorous outpourings of Pomme and Ali Darius (in "One Sings, the Other Doesn't"), but it could also be any couple's dream in such an ideal setting as the Imam Mosque in Esfahan where secular art meets religious art.
"7 P., Cuis., S. De B… (à saisir)" ("Seven Rooms, Kitchen and Bath," 1984, 27 min.)
An unusual visit to a large, empty apartment. But is it empty or not? Maybe a family has lived there or is going to live there… Maybe a young girl is going to escape from there… Maybe some of the old-timers who lived there have never left… The walls themselves tell the stories of the time passing by…
"Réponse de femmes" ("Women Respond," 1975, 8 min.)
1975: The Year of the Woman. A television station gives seven female filmmakers seven minutes to answer the question "What does it mean to be a woman?" Agnès Varda answers with the cine-tract, ("Our Body – Our Sex"). Women talking about sex, desire, commercials and children (whether to have them or not.) Viewers wrote in to complain about a naked pregnant woman, dancing and roaring with laughter.
"Les Dites Cariatides" ("The So-Called Caryatids," 1984, 12 min.)
Caryatids – female statues, human columns – sprung up all over Paris as Baudelaire was struck with aphasia.
"Elsa la Rose" ("Else the Rose," 1965, 20 min.)
Elsa Triolet's youth through the eyes of her husband, Louis Aragon, a French poet and novelist.
One final extra offered is the new (?? – no information is indicated on the DVD – 20 min.) featurette "From the Rooster to the Donkey," a hands-on discussion of Varda's short films, essentially a three-way conversation between Varda, scholar/filmmaker Alain Bergala and writer-director Anne Huet with clips from Varda's films mixed in. Not a dry clip show at all, this features Varda's typical puckish wit and is very engaging.
A slim insert booklet features a one paragraph introduction by Alain Bergala and a guide to the nine short films on the disc.
Does Agnès Varda get tired of her work being called charming? It's not as if she has always worked in an effervescent register. Her brilliant film "Happiness" is genuinely chilling, sunlight on the outside, zero to the bone inside. But like her most recent film "The Beaches of Agnes," "Cinevardaphoto" is an irresistible charmer, inspired by her precocious wit and her sharp eye. If you don't love Agnès Varda, you are dead to me.
Cinema Guild has produced yet another valuable release by a great filmmaker. Varda's short films have appeared here and there as extras on other DVDs, but collecting nine of them in one source is a boon to Region 1 film lovers.